Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



Parrish wrote to Century Magazine in September 1902 and accepted the commission to paint the illustrations for Edith Wharton's Italian Villages and Their Gardens. Following is the chronology of events leading to the decision to paint Caprarola from a photograph documented by the correspondence in the collection of Dartmouth College's Special Collections Department.

March 26, 1903

Wharton writes to Parrish telling him what villas she wishes him to visit. She writes about Caprarola: ... "This villa is about twelve miles from Viterbo and the upper gardens are enchanting though it is impossible to get in ... a permit for the Palace is not difficult ... if you know an ambassador, he can get you in. "

May 7, 1903

Wharton writes to Parrish and mistakenly includes her summer dress list (for which she apologizes at the end of the letter), saying that her photos of Caprarola, of which she had many, might not be good enough in the event he could not get in; she apologizes for the graininess of the photos and suggests that perhaps he could take some that will be better.

August 26, 1903

A. W. Drake from the Century art department writes to Parrish referring to Parrish's letter where the artist suggests that some of the villas are not "wildly interesting" and proposes that the artist might use his photographs for the "uninteresting" subjects to be done as half-tone pictures in the book and in the article.

October 12, 1903

Drake responds to a Parrish request asking for additional time to complete the next series of villas... . "Your letter of October 8 has touched the stony editorial heart and the result is that your deadline for the 'Villas near Rome' is postponed by one month."

November 28, 1903

Drake writes to Parrish that Mrs. Wharton wishes to include "Caprarola" in the set of the Roman villas due at the end of December instead of the next group, "Villas of Venice", due in May 1904. The idea of "retouching" a photograph of Caprarola is also brought up as a possible alternative.

December 2, 1903

Drake writes to Parrish once again thanking him for a prompt reply to the changes in the villa "due" list. He adds that he had been able to secure Mrs. Wharton's O.K. by telephone to Parrish's proposal of painting the photograph and showing it under the label "painted photo". He adds, "We must, of course, be satisfied with the view of Caprarola as you propose to make it, and will be sure to give full credit to the painted photograph as you request."

January 9, 1904

Drake sends Parrish a check and says, "... The series of drawings is very beautiful and we are all delighted with them. The Caprarola arrived in good order yesterday."[28]

The first edition of Italian Villas and Their Gardens featured the picture of the Villa Caprarola and described it as a "retouched photography by Maxfield Parrish". The painting, with Parrish's inscription in the front done in his unique and elegant script, reads: "Colored photograph of Caprarola". Parrish never sold the work and kept it in his studio at The Oaks, where it was when I acquired the property in 1978.

The other painted photograph is that of Lute Players. Parrish was commissioned to paint a large mural in a vertically oriented entrance for the Eastman Theater in Rochester, New York. He named it Interlude. When the decision was made to do a vertical fine art print of the work to be titled Lute Players to differentiate it from the original mural, A. E. Reinthal of Reinthal-Newman Company, the publisher of Parrish's fine art prints during the 1920s, sent the artist the following letter:

My dear Parrish,
We are sending you under separate cover, by first-class mail, the two photos of the Lute Players, which you kindly volunteered to paint for us for the two reproductions which we are making. [The print was reproduced in two formats: Interlude, as a vertical, and Lute Players, as a horizontal.] If it is not asking too much, we would like the return of these colored photos as early as possible as the presses are being held up for the proofing of the four color plates and nothing can be done with the offset print until we receive them from you.[29]

It is interesting to note that Coy Ludwig, who catalogued the Parrish collection, assigned the same catalogue number (L.680) to the original mural, Interlude, and to the painted photograph, Lute Players, which further proves that no original oil of Lute Players ever existed, just the painted photograph which was a derivative of the Eastman mural Interlude.[30]

In November 2004 the painted photo of Interlude/Lute Players appeared at auction in Maine. Julia Auction House properly identified it as having been painted over by the artist on a photographic print due to the difficulty in making a print based on the mural already in place at the Eastman Theatre. The information was written in the artist's distinctive stationery bearing his Windsor, Vermont address. There was a notation in pen from his executor, Maxfield Parrish Jr. saying the work had been framed under glass in 1977 and bearing the Parrish Estate Number 123.



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